Beckerian Discrimination in Philosophy's Credit Economy
Now far be it from me to dispute that I am low IQ and wrong about everything, and even if I did that is surely exactly what someone who is low IQ and wrong about everything would say! So I shan't dispute the characterisation here. Readers can judge for themselves whether it is plausible that I think nothing of value has been done by non African thinkers. And if one wanted my general advice on being black in philosophy I would simply refer back to my previous open letter on the matter.
But it did get me thinking about a little toy hypothesis I have been mulling on occasionally down the years, and which made an esoteric little appearance towards the end of that letter. The question I am concerned with is: why do philosophers leave credit on the table? Let me explain what I mean by that.
I work on the reward structure of the academy. I have blogged about it before. What matters to for my purpose here is just that in order to advance an academic career one must be credited by one's peers with doing good work, and this is often in particular felt as an incentive to publish novel work in esteemed journals. If one regularly publishes in journals philosophers consider good then, the market being what it is, there is no guarantee of career success - but if one does not do this it becomes very difficult indeed to make it. There is hence some rather strong incentive for people looking to stay in academia to seek out relatively easy means to gain access to academic credit.
Next, I think there is some clear credit advantage to being seen to combine novel combinations of ideas, ideas which are perhaps familiar when taken individually but not often brought to bear on one another. This point is both widely understood intuitively by academics and also backed up by some sociological work. People look for a "new angle" on problems in ethics by drawing on resources in metaphysics and epistemology, and do so precisely in the hope that this will let their work stand out enough to both get published and noticed subsequently to that.
Finally, I think it is well known that there are large traditions of philosophy which are relatively rarely deployed by people who work in academic philosophy departments (people most often mention Chinese, Indian, and Africana). They are hence aware that there is a ready made set of arguments and concepts out there which could well be given the above treatment.
And yet, well, they don't. The areas for the most part remain pretty niche. Despite their being manifest success cases of doing that! I am evidently one of them, and Jason Stanley by his own oft stated account was able to move into political philosophy in large part by deploying this tactic. It does, in fact, work to draw on these traditions and use ideas therein to develop thoughts on topics wherein they can be combined with work in traditions philosophers are more familiar with. So why not?
I think there are three commonly stated reasons for this when the matter comes up, two of which I think are simply false and one which might be true but which I am going to set aside. The first which I think has no real chance of being true is the idea that work in these traditions is just in fact much harder to read or deploy without subtle appreciation of the broader historical or cultural contexts they emerge from. (This could happen because the ideas are somehow intrinsically worse, and so it is harder to draw out something worthwhile from them.) So spending some of your time reading and trying to develop or apply ideas from here is more costly than doing it from analytic metaphysics or early modern European political philosophy etc. And, well, it's just not true. Take it from someone who reads in all these areas. The difficult level is not really different. Of course if one wanted to become a serious scholar of Zhu Xi's philosophy then yes there are all these high barriers to entry - but this is not so different than if one wanted to become a Rawls scholar, and certainly no different than if one wanted to be a scholar of some early modern European thinker. And this is not what we are talking about here, here we are simply thinking of drawing from their work (and in fact drawing from the secondary literature those scholars produce) to advance projects elsewhere. This can be done as casually or intensely as one would do with any other type of philosophy. The second is just a small variant on this which is that whether or not it is harder it is perceived to be such and that puts people off - but I think that this just could not be a stable equilibrium, as a few adventurous souls would inevitably prove the lie and encourage more entrants.
The third possibility, which I think could be right, is that I massively overestimate the basic awareness of the existence of those traditions. People are in fact literally just unaware that if they paid attention to thinkers from China or India or Africa they may learn of ideas/concepts/arguments which they may profitably engage with. I can imagine my social circles being filtered in a way that misleads me on just this point, so I will just own that this is a genuine possibility, and say that I am at least interested in a rival hypothesis, without having good reason to prefer the hypothesis I am interested in to this one. Suspending judgement is ok!
I am interested in the possibility that there is something like Beckerian discrimination against ideas in philosophy. Becker's theory of discrimination is familiar from economists and there are plenty of write ups available, here's one which I will just quote the statement of the basic idea from:
Becker’s 1957 book introduced the first economic model of discrimination. In this model, employers hold a ‘taste for discrimination,’ meaning that there is a disamenity value to employing minority workers. Hence, minority workers may have to ‘compensate’ employers by being more productive at a given wage or, equivalently, by accepting a lower wage for identical productivity... ... Assume that some members of the [majority] group are prejudiced against [minority] workers and demand a premium to work alongside them. This is similar to the case above, and leads to segregation. This is similar to the case above, and leads to segregation.
So the analogue would be that people have a `taste for discrimination' against ideas drawn from the aforementioned traditions. Something has to have a higher expected return on credit for it to be worth engage with than an otherwise (in some vague sense) equivalently credit worthy idea would have to be for people to want to advance their career through it. People in some implicit sense prefer a lower chance of gaining academic credit and thus the source of career success than they would to associate with some low-status-tradition's ideas.
Working out the details on this would be difficult and I am not going to attempt it here. There is some oddity in applying the theory to ideas or traditions rather than people. Also what does equivalently credit worthy mean? But I think it might be worth it! It seems quite possible that one could draw on the tradition of Beckerian modelling in economics to draw out the consequences of this claim, and then see whether it seems like a plausible model of what's going on in philosophy. That might be interesting?
In any case, what got me thinking about this is work with the excellent David Kinney on racism in what we (rather optimistically!) call "transitional societies". These are social orders which once had widespread and well known de jure racial bigotry. This is gone, but there are still clearly some racial disparities in how norms and rules are enforced, so it's not like there is de facto equality. Under these circumstances one can be unsure about whether the scenario one faces now is likely to be one in which the remnant racism is going to be especially pertinent, and this (we argue) can have some interesting consequences. What strikes me here is that perhaps something similar is going on - philosophy can't be so racist that one will just be stonewalled if one draws from traditions associated with low status minority groups. Otherwise my career wouldn't make sense! But perhaps something about the rather more hazy and confused current status of things leads people to none the less be wary of associating with ideas from these traditions, which then in practice becomes a kind of Beckerian discrimination against those ideas.
Could be! Could not be. I think one shouldn't dismiss such things too quickly, and when one sees that at least some people will come out and just say that Africana philosophy can be characterised and dismissed as the work of "low IQ" people one simply must wonder how widespread such attitudes are, even if usually in more subtle forms. There is, as ever, more work to do.